Hard long path to light

An apolitical look at which way the new presidency will move in its early years

Election 2020 Biden Photo Gallery Looking ahead: Democratic control over the Congress will help Biden expeditiously implement his priorities | AP

High anxiety assailed American families as a presidential election winner hung on a thin thread through a lengthy, but proud democratic process. Finally, before dawn on January 7, the US Congress confirmed Joe Biden as the winner, after a mob stormed the US Capitol the previous day in a stunning attempt to overturn his election and undercut democracy.

Lawmakers worked through the night and completed the electoral college tally in a display of the nation’s commitment to uphold the will of the voters and to ensure a peaceful transfer of power. The American democratic institutions are strong, and Vice President Mike Pence, presiding over the joint session of the Congress, announced the tally, 306 electoral votes to 232 in favour of Biden. This certification of the electoral votes will allow the Joe Biden/Kamala Harris team to plan ahead for a smooth transition of power on inauguration day, January 20.

Several states that elected President Trump in 2016 turned against him in 2020. The Republican party improved its edge among non-college-educated white voter class, as it spoke the language of bread-and-butter economics and promised jobs. The Democrats, with the exception of the progressive wing of the party, have abandoned class language and instead focused on national unity.

The Democrats swept three critical midwestern battleground states and won back the White House and the US Congress because they

a) kept Trump from running up the score with working-class whites;

b) peeled away Trump’s support in conservative suburbs;

c) got minority and especially African American voters to turn out in big numbers;

d) enticed and lured high voter turnouts across key states that tend to help the Democrats; and

e) played on general concerns of the American people—current state of the economy, potential threat to the health care system, controversial supreme court appointments, race and ethnic inequality, handling of the coronavirus pandemic, violent crimes across various states, loss of face in the foreign policy arena, immigration squeeze, economic inequality, gun policy, climate change and abortion policy.

Over the years, America has become deeply polarised, divided and dysfunctional. This will continue to erode American credibility internationally.

In 2016, the people gave Donald Trump a chance to make the government operation more efficient, accountable and transparent. I believe he did everything he promised and more. But it was different this year. Many Americans did not appreciate everything he did. One voter said, “The elephant is in the room, and you can smell the peanuts on his breath." As a Washington loyalist said, "Biden is more level-headed."

The inauguration of Biden/Harris will take place on the west front of the US Capitol in Washington, DC. Every elected president's term starts at noon on January 20, according to the 20th amendment to the constitution. The president-elect takes the oath of office before assuming duties. This year, there will be a virtual parade—thanks to the pandemic—featuring performances of people throughout the country. I have been told that the parade will celebrate America's heroes and reflect its diversity, heritage and resilience. The theme for the inaugural ceremonies is "Our Determined Democracy: Forging a More Perfect Union." After the swearing-in, President Biden will deliver his inaugural address.

Kamala Harris, who will be sworn in as vice president, will attract equal attention. With the latest elections in Georgia, the US senate is evenly split, 50-50, between the Democrats and Republicans, but the vice president holds the casting vote to break any tie. With this win, the Democrats will have control of a sought-after political trifecta—the White House, house of representatives and senate—for the first time since president Barack Obama’s first term. This is going to significantly assist Biden/Harris to expeditiously implement their priorities.

The new president will inherit five deeply intertwined crises: the health crisis, the economic crisis, the racial injustice crisis, the climate crisis and a complicated foreign policy platform. He has promised to build back better by taking bold action on all five simultaneously, and make unprecedented investments in health care, infrastructure and clean energy.

If you walk into a Washington, DC coffee shop, you could spot spies listening to conversations and speculations on how the Biden/Harris administration will handle key foreign policy irritants. How powerful is the US president in the arena of foreign policy? The extent of the president's actual power—specifically war power—is a hotly contested debate.

According to Biden, “America First has made America Alone!” He has decades of foreign policy experience honed during his time as vice president and chair of the senate foreign relations committee. But his immediate focus will be on the pandemic, the economic recession it has caused, and its massive social reckoning from inattention to systemic racism and social injustice.

As Biden handles these domestic challenges, he may face pressures from his own party, pressures that will influence his foreign policy. He will invest more in education and cutting-edge technologies, areas that will create an industrial policy that connects foreign policy and domestic policy.

One of the main concerns is that Biden may have difficulty managing the inevitable divisions between the moderate and progressive wings of the Democratic party. That could create real problems in foreign policy by pulling him in opposing directions.

The United States' place in the world is largely shaped by the president's foreign policy, and Biden will face an array of international challenges the moment his term begins. The Trump administration took an aggressive stance on some foreign policy matters. Yet, under Biden, you will not see an overnight change; it takes time to flip back the switch. Most likely, it will be four years of fluctuations, as Biden works to reinstate some of the policies the current administration cast aside. And flip-flopping could hurt the US on the world stage, leaving allies confused.

Regime change: Trump had targeted job visas and green cards. The new administration, however, is likely to liberalise immigration laws | Reuters Regime change: Trump had targeted job visas and green cards. The new administration, however, is likely to liberalise immigration laws | Reuters

Over the years, America has become deeply polarised, divided and dysfunctional. This will continue to erode American credibility internationally. Allies have assumed that the US is unreliable, that it has turned inward. And, I think, adversaries will start testing American resolve.

Regardless of what Biden intends to do, Washington’s allies and opponents will be unsure of long-term US commitments to tackling the world's most pressing issues. The international community has lost its confidence in American foreign policy, and this loss of confidence is eroding America's capacity to act programmatically in the international realm.

Biden and Trump differ on foreign policy issues such as global public health, climate change and multilateralism, but they agree on China, on counterterrorism and on the use of military force. Under Biden, the US will rejoin the Paris treaty on climate, restore funding for the World Health Organisation and work better with other countries in combating the pandemic. America's traditional allies in Europe and Asia will be prioritised as was under president Obama. Biden will work extremely hard to revive NATO, to reaffirm the US commitment to its allies—creating a very strategic partnership with the European Union.

US relations with China, the world's second-largest economy, will remain tense and may harden further. China can be seen as a partner to tackle climate change, but more countries will join the US in being unhappy with Beijing over trade, technology and assertiveness across East Asia. That will allow the US the opportunity to coordinate a China policy with other countries.

Biden hopes to return to the Iran nuclear deal that Obama brokered and Trump withdrew the US from. He will adopt cooler relations with Saudi Arabia. Biden will most probably engage with Russia on arms control and accident prevention. The New START nuclear arms control treaty with Russia expires on February 5; Biden will renew it.

America's oldest and most important ally, the United Kingdom, will remain so under the Biden administration. The Congress is concerned that Brexit will create a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, and jeopardise the Good Friday agreement that has brought peace in Northern Ireland. Although Biden will go back on what the current administration has done, he will not give Europeans everything they want or go back to where we were before. That America isn’t there anymore.

The US embassy in Israel moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem two years ago. Biden will keep it there and endorse the deals the current administration made to normalise ties between Israel and the Gulf countries. Under him, the US will continue drawing down troops in Afghanistan and the Middle East, based on circumstances. I believe the era of major treaties is over. It is likely that our counterparts won’t trust us to uphold our end of the bargain. Even if the US wants to reclaim its traditional mantle of leadership, America will always be the country that elected Donald Trump.

On Pakistan, there has been a significant change over the last few years, going back to the second half of the Obama administration and continued in the Trump era. There is no longer a strategic bond as seen during the Clinton and Bush eras. Biden’s relations with Pakistan will depend on how things play out in Afghanistan. As long as the US is engaged in an ongoing peace process in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Biden would want to ensure ample engagement with Islamabad. Especially with troop reduction in Afghanistan, there is less of a heavy dependency for the US on Pakistan. However, the US must maintain a relationship with Pakistan to keep some form of balance in that region with great concerns on terrorism and nuclear weapons.

Kamala Harris can be expected to make a positive impact on the US-Indian partnership. Biden himself values a strong strategic partnership with India for confronting troublesome neighbours, for expanding markets and for dealing with climate change and health security. He is a better ally because he views the connection between our two nations as a relationship, rather than a series of transactions.

Biden places immigration as central to the American competitive advantage, its spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation. He has promised to “undo Trump’s damage” and “heal the wounds” inflicted on immigrants. His pledge to liberalise immigration could be a game-changer for Indian-Americans, who have been disproportionately affected by H-1B visa ban and green card suspension.

Biden is in favour of increasing the number of high-skilled visas and of eliminating country-wise limits on employment visas, which create unacceptably long backlogs. At present, the annual cap on green cards available for Indians is 20,000, leading to wait times that stretch across decades. Biden will do everything possible to work with the Congress to increase the number of visas awarded for permanent, employment-based immigration.

The current administration curtailed immigration of all kinds, while focusing on the America First strategy, and suspended all H-1B visas issued after June until the end of the year. Biden will revise this notification on H-1B visas, which was a blow to numerous Indian professionals in the US. Many H-1B holders lost their jobs, as visa renewal became difficult. Corporations are staying away from hiring and investing in H-1B visa candidates as the application process became very laborious, difficult and costly.

Biden will make it easier for qualified H-1B visa candidates who have filed for green card to move through the backlog. His policy is to encourage professional students to stay on in the US. He believes that high skilled temporary visas should not be used to disincentivise recruiting workers who are already in the US for in-demand jobs. Biden has made it clear that losing the well-trained workers to foreign economies is a disservice to our own economic competitiveness.

The US has 18 million illegal immigrants. Under the current administration, the distinction between legal immigrants and illegal immigrants got really muddied. H-1B workers are honest taxpayers and they make tremendous contributions to American society for conversion from H-1B to green card and eventually to citizenship. Biden's intention to increase work visas, speed up green cards and issue more visas for students and visitors will boost the US economy and strengthen the education system as universities heavily depend on fees from foreign students.

Biden is not a miracle cure for what ails America. But he is a good man who would restore steadiness and civility to the White House. He is equipped to begin the long, difficult task of putting a fractured country back together again. He can, as he said, be “an ally of the light, not our darkness."

(Rev Fr Alexander J. Kurien is Senior Executive in the US government in Washington, DC and has served under five presidents. He was Managing Director at the office of strategic planning in the State Department for 14 years.)